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"Computer connection is key for sick children"

- February, 2009 - Tiffany Strong of The Herald Gazette Reporter highlights Grahamtastic.

Leslie Morissette founded Grahamtastic Connection. (Image courtesy of Cheryl Rau Photography)
For children with cancer and other serious illnesses, hospital stays mean being poked and prodded, missing school, and being away from their friends.

 

But one woman in Southern Maine is working to change that. Leslie Morissette of Springvale founded Grahamtastic Connection in 1998, a program that offers free computers and Internet access to sick children for educational purposes while they are in treatment.

Locally, children in Rockland, Rockport, Washington, Vinalhaven, Matinicus and Tenants Harbor have benefited from the program. In total 235 children have received computers to help them stay connected to their classrooms, friends and family.

Most recently, Ezekiel Bryant, 8, of Matinicus Island and Tenants Harbor received a laptop while being treated at Maine Medical Center for cystic fibrosis.

Bryant's mother, Natalie Ames, said the laptop is invaluable. Anyone who has cystic fibrosis is isolated because of the nature of the disease, she said. Cystic fibrosis patients cannot be around each other because of the danger of contracting a bacterial infection. They must wear masks to protect themselves and others if they leave their hospital rooms, and cannot share a common computer. Ames said children with cystic fibrosis shouldn't even have play dates with each other.

Bryant's laptop came with a webcam and Skype. Skype is software that allows users to make free phone calls over the Internet to others who also have Skype. There was another cystic fibrosis patient in the Barbara Bush wing of Maine Medical Center when Bryant was there. She received a similar laptop and now she and Bryant can talk to each other anytime with a video call.

Ames also met the mother of the patient. "Now it will be nice to have a friend who understands exactly what we go through," she said.

This connection is an integral part of Grahamtastic. Morissette has also placed laptops in hospitals and clinics to further aid people in staying connected.

"My goal is to connect children to their classrooms, patients to clinics, parents to parents," she said. "This program is all about connecting people face to face for support, education and healing."

Morissette's inspiration comes from her son Graham, who was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 7 years old. Graham died one and a half years later in 1998. Morissette remembers being in the hospital with Graham, trying to research medical information, and being frustrated by the lack of computer access.

"Graham was very giving, loving and generous," she said. "He was always doing things for other people."

Morissette said Graham would put on a clown wig to make the other sick children laugh and would make barrettes and jewelry for the nurses.

Graham Morissette, with his puppy Finally, is the inspiration for the laptop program. (Image courtesy of Leslie Morissette)"I want to live my life in a way that he would be proud of me," said Morissette. "I want to keep his memory alive."

Morissette's program started in Maine but expanded nationwide once Maine children traveled to other hospitals in the country for treatment. The process starts when someone from a child's medical team gets in touch with Morissette, who concentrates on supporting very ill children who are too sick to leave their hospital rooms or beds. Once a child receives a laptop they keep it for the length of their treatment, about two or three years in the case of cancer patients, said Morissette. Parents are asked to return the laptop once their child is in remission. Children with cystic fibrosis undergo lifelong treatment, so they have their laptops longer.

Students at the Westbrook Regional Vocational Center under the guidance of Rob Jaime, computer repair instructor, refurbish and repair Grahamtastic's laptops free as part of their technology curriculum.

Recently FairPoint Communications offered to connect 100 children to the Internet for free. "This is a fantastic donation," said Morissette. "Many companies have been very generous to our cause."

Bryant, a second-grader at Matinicus Island Elementary School, said he felt really excited when he received his laptop. "Now I can talk to Hutch," he said. Hutch is Glenn Hutchins, the hospital teacher in pediatrics at Maine Medical Center.

Bryant's father, Woody Bryant, of Tenants Harbor said receiving the computer was a "remarkable act of generosity that makes Zeke's illness a little easier to bear." He also said the computer makes his son happy.

 

Ezekiel Bryant works on his new laptop. "This computer is very nice," he said. "I like it. I'm on Google Earth right now." (Photo by Tiffany Strong)George Andrews of Vinalhaven said his son Dominic was also a recipient of a Grahamtastic computer. Dominic died on Nov. 1, 2008, at the age of 4 of Canavan disease, a rare genetic disorder. Andrews said the computer was a valuable tool for him and Dominic's mother, Stephanie Crochere, to communicate with others. "When we felt alone it was nice to have it," he said. They used the computer and Skype to contact The Jason Program in Portland, a program that provided medical, social and spiritual support for them.

Andrews said they were also able to use Skype to contact Dominic's social worker, saving them time and money on ferry and other transportation costs.

This is especially helpful for people in more rural and isolated communities such as the islands, Morissette said. This kind of emotional support through telemedicine is exactly what she strives to achieve.

Last year Grahamtastic Connection placed laptops with 72 children in Maine and nationally. Morissette's goal in 2009 is to get computers to 100 critically ill children. As of Feb. 25, 22 children had received laptops.

Morissette said financial support is crucial to the services Grahamtastic provides and its ability to serve unmet needs. Her organization also accepts donations of gently used laptops that are three years old or less. For more information, visit grahamtastic.org.

Morissette usually takes the opportunity to meet the children she helps at Maine Medical Center because of her proximity to the hospital. "I build relationships with these children," she said. "They e-mail me and Web call me." She said it can be really hard but the good outweighs the bad.

"I feel so honored to be in their lives," she said.